Monday, March 30, 2009

washington and weimar

One of the consequences of writing about fascism is that you tend to see it, or its antecedents, everywhere. This can be especially uncomfortable if you belong to a conservative political party, since the accusation of incipient fascism is more frequently made against the right than the left, although many contemporary scholars see fascism as an essentially left-wing movement. But a decline in political civility, of the type that characterized Weimar Germany and other pre-fascist political cultures, is visible across the board.

At a meeting which I attended last week, a highly respected Republican official referred to President Obama, without evident irony, as a "communist." Another referred to the stimulus bill as the Larceny Bill or words to that effect. But this sort of dismissive putdown is not limited to one side. Whether it's Al Franken (a likely senator) writing a book entitled "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," or liberal columnists laughing at Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindal, each side seems more interested in lampooning the other--or worse--than seriously considering its arguments.

There is admittedly a difference in partisan styles. Republicans tend to impugn the patriotism of their opponents while Democrats tend to impugn their intelligence. This too has precedents in Wilhelmian and Weimar Germany: everyone remembers the agitation that gave rise to the Nazis, but few remember the condescension that issued from magazines like Simplicissimus, or the intellectuals' arrogant assumption that a coarse, populist movement could not possible affect them. Then as now, the argument that I am smarter or better educated than you are, and can therefore safely dismiss your positions, is a poor basis for political stability.

Particularly dangerous is the combination of progressive values and economic elitism that pervades so much of the governing class. Both Democrats and Republicans have offered a number of clever arguments as to why it was "unfair" to tax the AIG bonuses, noting the sanctity of contract, that the bonuses amounted to less than 1 percent of AIG's overall value, and so forth. But are these arguments likely to be convincing to people who have lost their jobs or their homes, and see the executives responsible for the mess walk off essentially unscathed? Is it really illegitimate to consider the symbolic as well as substantive component of such decisions, or their implications for political stability?

When I was younger I used to be amused by the Israeli Parliament, where it's pretty common for members to scream at each other, in a variety of languages. It's a small country, I thought, with a pressured existence: maybe they're just letting off steam. What's our excuse?

Friday, March 27, 2009

john hope franklin 1915-2009

I don't usually note the death of academics, but John Hope Franklin was no ordinary scholar. A leader in African-American studies before the term even existed, Franklin more than any other single individual made Black history "mainstream," a regular part of American education rather than a sideshow. That he did so with grace and erudition rather than anger or vitriol makes it all the more impressive.

Like many of my generation, I did not study African-American history comprehensively as a college student. Instead I read Franklin's masterpiece, "From Slavery to Freedom," as part of my preparation to run in a largely Black district last year. What struck me most was the contrast between the horrific events described and the elegant, almost detached tone in which the book itself was written. Thus Franklin describes the slave patrols/militias that patrolled southern roads in the slavery era, demanding identification from passing Blacks and--especially in periods of slave rebellions--often meeting out harsh and brutal justice to those with unsatisfactory answers (the parallel to Jews in Europe is notable here as elsewhere.) At other points, he describes the sexual abuse of Black women and the riots that met demands for racial justice after the First World War. Obviously he was not neutral with respect to any of this. But he never slips into polemics or bombast, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves, and never losing sight of the fact that Black history is not a separate area but an integral part of the American story.

One theme that frequently shows up in Black (and Jewish) history is its circular nature: the fear, receding at times but never quite disappearing, that what has been won can be lost again, that eternal vigilance is,in a very real and immediate sense the price of freedom. I suspect this is one of the reasons Blacks and Whites have reacted so differently to the Obama Presidency. Scholars often refer to the post-Civil War era as the First Reconstruction and the era following Brown v. Board of Education--or perhaps the 1965 Civil Rights Act--as the Second. A common if unstated fear has long been that the Second Reconstruction, like the first, would end in reaction and defeat. Now, at least symbolically, the model has been shattered: whatever else happened in the 1890s, there was not a Black President forty years after the Civil War, and certainly not one who carried several southern states. None of this means that the struggle, however defined, is over. But no one can deny that things have changed, or that the work of John Hope Franklin and his followers was worth the time and effort expended.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

israeli atrocities in gaza

Israeli soldiers have reported atrocities in the Gaza War, including the shooting of civilians without adequate efforts at identification and a generally indifferent attitude toward civilian casualties. The reports are to some degree compromised as they appear to originate with a training program run by a left-leaning individual with a beef against the increasingly religious/messianic caste of the Army, especially in the elite combat units. Nevertheless, the reports are broadly consistent with the findings of neutral observers, and are being taken seriously by most involved.

Having followed the war (including Hebrew broadcasts) pretty closely, I have long suggested that there was a somewhat trigger-happy approach in Zahal (the Israel Defense Forces), borne out of a desire to minimize Israeli casualties and avoid the domestic political opposition that characterized the Second Lebanon War. The important thing, I think, is that this matter be investigated by people--Israelis and others--who can be trusted to take an objective view of the issue and not use it as a wedge for anti-Israel (or for that matter, pro-Israel) propaganda. Such people would, for example, take seriously the special nature of the operation--a war against urban guerillas/terrorists rather than a uniformed army--neither ignoring this factor nor using it as an excuse for any and all Israeli misbehavior. In this latter sense, if nothing else, discussion of the issue within Israel is an encouraging sign.

A less encouraging sign is the use of the issue as a club for the usual religious-secular rivalry in Israeli society. The NY Times "Week in Review" ran an article today suggesting that atrocities may have been encouraged or condoned by religious fanatics (including rabbis and others) who inculcated soldiers with a sense of religious war. The problem with this analysis is that there were an equal if not larger number of similar allegations involving Israeli (and Arab) forces when secularists were firmly in control of the Army and society. A neutral investigation should be run by people who can see beyond such prejudices to the facts at hand.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

obama, geithner, aig

Everybody is talking about this, so it's hard to add anything new. Let me content myself with a few points:

1. I am almost never sympathetic to the argument that "there's nothing we can do about it." Larry Cunningham had a fine piece in the Times yesterday about six or eight arguments that are commonly used to breach existing "contractual arrangements." As far as retroactive taxes go, these are rarely held unconstitutional; Larry Tribe had a post yesterday in which he suggested that other arguments (bill of attainder, etc.) would probably not fly if the provision were drafted sufficiently broadly. Publicity alone may force the return of some bonuses: there is evidence it already has.

2. The most interesting thing to me about the story is that the people at AIG would even have attempted to pay the bonuses in the current atmosphere. The only conclusion I can reach is that they genuinely felt they deserved them and did not see anything very unusual about it, which tells you a lot about the distance between Wall Street and the rest of the country. If they had been strategic, they would have set the money aside and paid it when things were calmer.

3. If people don't like the job Geithner is doing, they should consider expediting the approval process for Treasury positions and stop holding people up for not paying babysitter taxes, etc.

It pains me to say this, but I wonder if Obama wasn't smarter than I thought he was in pushing his budget package. Everybody and her brother is writing pieces to the effect that Obama is in over his head, that he needs to shelve his tax, health, and other proposals until he has dealt with the banking crisis. The problem is that none of them really has any idea how to do this, nor--except for a few moderate Republicans--much of an alternative to the Obama approach. The President, by contrast, has kept to a fairly simple story line: there is a short-term and a long-term economic crisis; it won't do any good to solve the short-term (banking) crisis unless the long-term crisis (economic inequality, declining infrastructure, dependence on foreign energy, and so forth) is dealt with also; I'm the only one who has a plan that addresses these issues. Whether any of this is really true--whether Obama's proposals would actually make any of these things better or even make them worse--may be less important than the perception of a crisis and the lack of obvious alternatives in dealing with it. Every time someone does something like the AIG executives, his suggestion of an existential crisis becomes that much more credible. How long before we start seeing articles about Obama's comeback, how he has learned on the job and wasn't so naive, to begin with?

and back at home . . .

Last Sunday's NY Times Style section has a piece about a commune in San Francisco (where else?) which is devoted to female orgasm. The participants gather for breakfast each day following which there is an hour of "meditation" in which the group sits in a large circle paired off by gender, the men fully clothed and the women clothed above the waste. The men are instructed to bring the women to orgasm, presumably with their hands [the article does not specify], following which the entire group sits for another hour and, you guessed it, talks about the experience. The men are not touched, at least not in the morning, although they participate actively in the discussion and other communal activities. The article includes interviews with several participants, a number of whom appear [you guessed it again] to have had difficulties in their previous relationships, although most of whom praised the experience; one said the exercise had helped him or her [I honestly don't remember which] to concentrate better in their regular job.

I'm not sure what to make of the article, or whether the procedure it describes is even that unusual. (As one friend put it, when I described an hour spent bringing a partner to orgasm with no reciprocal pleasure, "Sounds like my house very weekend.") People from the early Israeli kibbutzim to modern weekend retreats have experimented with group sexual activity, and the idea of focusing on female orgasm--hardly an intuitive one to most men--has a place in Indian religious practice going back hundreds of years.

The article does make one thing inescapably clear: there are a lot of lonely people out there, and many of them are having trouble finding "intimacy," however defined, in conventional ways. Perhaps this explains why so many people at upper income levels, who would appear to have the most to lose, support liberal movements with a markedly collectivist bent. They are not looking for economic advantage, and perhaps not even for social justice in any definable sense. They are looking for a sense of connection, and the society that we have created in recent decades is not providing it for them. At least, not east of Oakland.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

while meanwhile in italy . . .

My wife and I had a free hour last night between dinner and picking up my son at political junkie training last night, so we stopped in one of the nearby mall bookstores, where she went to look at serious books and I browsed through the Italian newsmagazines. Amidst the usual stories of economic and political decline was a poll of Italian parliamentarians which asked a simple question: have you ever been unfaithful to your spouse or other partner? 87 percent--seven of eight--responded in the affirmative, and some of the remainder refused to answer.

Statistics about infidelity are notoriously unreliable, since there's no way to check and people tend to lie about it--in both directions. In one sense, it doesn't matter: the perception of what is socially acceptable, rather than the behavioral reality, is arguably more culturally significant, and the polling data (whether over- or understated) pretty clearly answers the former question for the Italian elite. Italy may be going to the dogs, but it's nice to see it maintaining its cultural identity. Or, perhaps, exporting it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

roger cohen on france and america

Interesting post by Roger Cohen in the online NY Times today. Under the beguiling title "One France is Enough," Cohen--who lived in Paris for many years--eviscerates Bush but suggests that Obama is pushing too far in a European statist direction, which runs the risk of destroying the risk-and-reward culture which distinguishes us from our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. "If America loses sight of [these historic] truths," writes Cohen, "it will cease to be itself."

When you have died-in-the-wool, Eurocentric liberals saying things like this, you know that it's time to think twice. He's not the only liberal, or moderate, to say so: David Broder has warned of the enormous risks Obama is taking with the economy, while David Gergen, who worked in the Reagan but also Clinton White Houses, sees similar dangers. Here's hoping someone is listening.

Additional note: Jackson Diehl, assistant editorial page editor of the Washington Post--yes, the liberal Washington Post--has a piece today called George W. Obama which shows how Obama's presidency is beginning to resemble you-know-who, citing his lack of demand for sacrifice; his excessive partisanship masked by bipartisan rhetoric; and his less-than-well-thought-out foreign policy. The N.Y. Times, and a few others, will continue to cheerlead for Obama and try to distract attention to Rush Limbaugh, Bobby Jindal, etc. But the facts are starting to catch with the new President--and it's only 50 days.

Monday, March 02, 2009

taxes and the budget: part ii

As mentioned before, one of the tax proposals in the Obama Budget calls for itemized deductions to be taken only against a base 28 percent rate rather than the higher rate (36 percent, 39.6 percent) that might apply to an individual taxpayer. This and other tax increases are designed to pay for a national health care system and, more generally, to redistribute money between income classes. The proposal has an interesting history, having appeared in various 1980s-era tax reform plans and, in more attenuated form, in the itemized deduction "phaseout" under current law. It is also heir to a distinguished, if confusing, policy discussion.

Those of you who have studied tax policy may remember the debate between William Andrews and Mark Kelman about itemized deductions. Andrews suggested that such deductions (notably the medical and charitable variety) were a legitimate part of income measurement, since spending of this nature did not involve a "preclusive" application of resources in the manner of ordinary consumption activities. According to this analysis, there was no more reason to object to such deductions than (say) ordinary business expenditures. Kelman, by contrast, viewed medical or charitable expenses as essentially another form of consumption, so that the deduction appeared anomalous if not wholly unjustified. For good measure, Kelman accused Andrews of being overly concerned with petty horizontal equity issues as opposed to more serious matters of distributional justice, a feeling which may have contributed to Kelman's departing the tax field as he did shortly thereafter.

From a policy perspective, the Andrews-Kelman debate--if a bit old-fashioned at times--remains relevant to today's proposal. If one, like Kelman, views itemized deductions as essentially a subsidy for preferred forms of consumption, cutting them back for rich taxpayers seems reasonable if not actively desirable. (It is an inevitable feature of deductions that they benefit wealthy more than poorer taxpayers, because they apply to a higher tax rate and because the rich tend to have more of them, anyway.) If, like Kelman, one sees them as a part of income measurement, the cutback is harder although not wholly impossible to defend. I personally find the whole debate a bit abstract for my tastes, although I do think that it depends somewhat which deductions you are talking about: charitable contributions sound a lot more like voluntary consumption to me than (say) medical deductions or State and local taxes, which at least in my State are not considered voluntary, although in theory I could move to Alaska (e.g.) and avoid them.

Whatever one makes of the theory, the Obama proposals will make for some very interesting political bedfellows. Medical deductions being limited to those in excess of 7.5 percent of AGI (and not covered by insurance), the most important itemized deductions tend to be those for home mortgage interest, State and local taxes, and charitable contributions. The deduction for each of these items benefits the taxpayers but also the recipients of their funds, who in at least two cases (tax-exempt charities and the housing industry) are currently on their derrieres thanks to the economic crisis and (for many charities) the antics of Bernie Madoff, who liberated them of much of their cash right as the crisis began. The charities and high-tax states (California, New York, etc.) that benefit from itemized deductions are, moreover, frequently liberal in orientation, the kind of people Obama depends on for political support. By reducing the value of these deductions, he is thus--to use the language of tax expenditures--essentialy cutting spending on economic sectors that are both economically depressed and politically sympathetic to him. Depending on one's viewpoint, this may demonstrate either his political courage or naivete; but it certainly makes things interesting.

One interesting wrinkle: many of the people who would be hit by this proposal are already paying higher taxes under the AMT (alternative minimum tax), which treats some, but not all, itemized deductions as preference items. While making Obama appear perhaps less cruel than he would otherwise, this also reduces the likely revenue impact from his proposal. But that is for another column.